Voters are still unconvinced that Rishi Sunak is the right Prime Minister, Conservative MPs have said after two huge by-election defeats.
The Tories lost two seats with around 20,000 majorities in by-elections on Thursday in Selby and Ainsty, to Labour, and Somerton and Frome, to the Lib Dems, while narrowly holding on to Boris Johnson’s old Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat amid a challenge from Labour.
Tory Party chairman Greg Hands claimed the 495-vote victory in Uxbridge was the “standout result” while Mr Sunak insisted the next general election was not a “done deal” despite the loss of two safe seats.
But Tory MPs suggested the party could be on for a crushing defeat in next year’s national poll unless Mr Sunak can start better inspiring voters, with one even suggesting a leadership challenge.
A former Tory cabinet minister told i: “The Uxbridge result gives some hope to the Tories over the summer but it was a result due to exceptional local circumstances, which aren’t in place in many other Tory seats around the country.
“For us to hold onto these other seats, the public will look to the Prime Minister and his Government and frankly, as the polls show, they aren’t inspiring at present nor are they convincing the public to stay with us.
“The loss of the other two seats is no surprise and to be expected and we would expect to win them back at the general election.
“But that isn’t certain unless the Government starts resonating with the public more than it currently is doing.”
A former minister suggested Tory MPs could once again find a ruthless streak if Mr Sunak does not show progress soon, although this is not a widely held view in the party at present.
The ex-minister said: “It is clear that Rishi has not sealed the deal with voters and there is no love for Labour.
“There is all to play for the Conservatives but it is becoming clear we need a new leader as the results reflect the polls – Uxbridge is an outlier as was a specific local issue.”
Former minister Sir Robert Goodwill, a supporter of Mr Sunak, told i the Tories could overturn the defeat in Selby at the general election, but acknowledged “it’s a clear signal and we get the message”.
“But I don’t think Keir Starmer can take too much comfort, particularly given the result in Uxbridge,” he added.
Sir Robert said people were angry about the manner in which former MP Nigel Adams stood down and “a lot of our voters stayed home”, highlighting figures showing Labour only got 3,000-or-so extra votes while the Tory vote collapsed.
But he added: “They were pissed off about Partygate, they were pissed off about what happened with Liz Truss and in the autumn, and they still haven’t been fully convinced that Rishi is on the right track.
“It may have been different if we had some people on a plane to Rwanda, or if inflation had fallen a little bit sooner, the inflation figures were surprisingly bad when people were casting postal votes, but they were surprisingly good this week.
“We’ve also got the doctors’ strikes which mean the waiting lists aren’t coming down, the effects of the rail strikes are still happening.
“These are things we need to address.”
Sally-Ann Hart, Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, meanwhile said the results were not a reflection on Mr Sunak’s performance.
“As expected – Labour lost a chance at winning because of the appalling Ulez (ultra-low emission zone in Uxbridge) and flip flopping.
“Selby and Somerton – previous MPs’ behaviour caused these losses, it is no reflection on the PM.
“We will keep going with the plan, regaining the public’s trust and delivering on our promises.”